The Curse of Chief Bracken

By Terry Hogan

One cannot help but notice the rash of haunting stories now being published and, well, haunting the book store shelves in the local history section. There are even "bed and breakfast" outfits, taverns, and tourist promotion groups pushing the "haunting business." So, how can I resist telling this story, particularly at Halloween? I’d have to do it, even if it meant hiring a "ghost writer".

Long ago, there was a minor Indian chief by the English name of Chief Bracken. There are two versions on how he got his English name. One is that he was born in a shaded valley, heavily populated by ferns. In the local Indian tradition, he was named for an event associated with his birth, so his Indian name related to the flourishing ferns. A botanist did the rough English translation of the Indian name, and so the Chief’s English name became "Bracken" for the bracken fern. The second version of the story is that his parents had originally been from Ohio, moving west to avoid the advancing Europeans. In this version, his mother was an European woman, who had been captured as a young child in Kentucky. She either was traded to an Ohio tribe or moved with her new family to Ohio. Her surname had been Bracken (Brackin, Bracen, etc.). Such is the nature of old stories. Pick one. Your choice. Perhaps one may be true. Perhaps neither.

In any event, Chief Bracken and a small following lived in relative peace along Brush Creek in the early 1800s, south of what was to become Galesburg and southwest of Knoxville. Chief Bracken was a distant relative, it is recorded, to Chief Shabena. Chief Shabena, as you may recall, was a friend of the early white settlers who came to Knox and Warren counties. Shabena warned the local settlers of Chief Black Hawk’s plan which, when implemented, was known as the Black Hawk War.

Chief Bracken had a stormier relationship with the white settlers than Shabena. The early settlers to the Brush Creek area arrived in late summer, too late to clear land and to plant crops for winter subsistence. These white settlers settled on Chief Bracken’s traditional lands near Brush Creek and harvested the Indians’ corn and other crops, presumably out of necessity, but made no effort to compensate the tribe. The "extra mouths" created a food shortage for the Indians. The settlers also hunted the game, fished the creek, and generally made life harder to live for Chief Bracken and his small band of followers. The settlers brought hogs, often allowed to roam freely, and cattle, and chickens. The settlers built homes, fences, barns, and cleared timber for lumber and fuel. Some mined coal that was visible at outcroppings. A few settlers even sought the location of the rumored Chief Shabena gold mine that was thought to be in the area.

Ultimately, the Indians, short of food and land, deprived of hunting areas and security to plant crops (the settler’s hogs often destroyed the Indian’s crops), were forced to leave the area, an all-too-common tale. However, before leaving, Chief Bracken, now an old, old, defeated man, confronted the local white settler leader, whose name is long lost to history. Chief Bracken uttered a curse in the best-broken English that he could master. It is told that the old chief died shortly after making the curse, and was buried on the traditional tribal lands, before the remnants of his tribe left Brush Creek, never to return, and consumed by the white man’s history.

The curse, only poorly remembered, was recorded several years later and then only on a scrap of paper that was found decades later in an old Williamson family Bible. The Bible had traveled with its family to Okalahoma with western expansion. Although the leather and gold cover of the Bible was worn and faded, it remained intact. A brief narrative of the family’s travels, including both the trip to Okalahoma, and the brief stay in Illinois was preserved in the Bible, along with a family history. The Bible was, at some point, stored in a dry attic, in an old Swedish trunk, passing the years, and storing its bit of history. The old papers, folded in the Bible, gradually turned the facing pages of the Bible brown, forever recording the precise location of the old story.

In the early 90’s, the Swedish trunk was found and retrieved from the attic. The Bible was found inside and prized for the wealth of knowledge it held about the family’s history. The hand-written narrative of the ancestral travels was priceless. However, the story of Chief Bracken was disconcerting, when read, as such stories are far from being politically correct by contemporary standards.

The Chief Bracken curse, according to the brief written account in the Bible, said that Brush Creek would forever flood the land taken from the Indians. The land would no longer grow crops. The land would no longer provide wild animals-deer, rabbits, turkey, and squirrels to be shot for food. It said that the curse would take away the land from the settlers as the settlers had taken the land away from the Indians. The land would be dammed.

Probably, the white settlers paid little or no attention to the rantings of this old, uneducated and irate Indian. The recorded story made no note of the settlers’ response, or even what other families were present to hear the curse. However, it is known that the area remained inhabited by white settlers. Some original settlers or their children sold their land and moved on. Others raised families and the land was passed down through generations. No immediate signs of the curse were apparently observed.

The curse was lost to history until rediscovered by a genealogist interested in the Williamson family history found it in the Bible. And a curse without record is much like no curse at all. However, genealogists are curious by nature. Some might even say "nosey". The genealogist soon established the location of the parcel of land once owned by the Williamson family near Brush Creek.

To her surprise, she found that Chief Bracken’s curse had come true. There were no longer crops on the land. There was no longer game to hunt. Deer, turkeys, squirrels, and rabbits no longer inhabited the land. Neither white settlers nor Indians lived on the land to plant crops or to hunt game.

The land was cursed with constant darkness. No sun reached its soil. No snow blanketed it for the winter sleep. It was, as Chief Bracken’s curse had pronounced, dammed.

The curse had been fulfilled; even if none knew for years that the curse existed. The effects of the curse are there for us to see, even today. But few notice it or recognize the event. Fewer even know of the old curse. It is believed that this is the first public printing of the old Chief’s proclamation. But just because a curse is not known, doesn’t mean that it won’t be fulfilled. We often ponder why seemingly random terrible events occur in our lives.

Such was the strength of the Chief Bracken’s curse, damming the land of Brush Creek.*



No, "damming" and "dammed" are not typos. Brush Creek was dammed to form Lake Bracken. No known curse exists…but then again, it doesn’t mean that it didn’t happen. Happy Halloween.